Andy McSmith's Diary: Bercow’s trying to save a building, not build power

The  Speaker’s defeat has given heart to the Tories that want to oust him

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Indy Politics

To an outsider, one of the most absurd debates raging among MPs might seem to be whether a woman from Canberra, in Australia, is the right person to be the next Clerk of the Commons. The issue is considered so important in Westminster that it took up two-and-a-half hours of intense debate on Tuesday night, and could yet lead to the Speaker, John Bercow, being ousted.

The argument is not really about the person, but about the nature of the job. The ancient building that houses Parliament is in a sorry state, with no proper renovation since 1960. Bad things keep happening, like bits falling off roofs, or damp appearing where old lead pipes have leaked. In July 2011, 30,000 litres of water spilled out in an upper floor. Below ground, there are thousands of cables leading to nobody knows where. When MPs return after the 2015 election, they will have little choice but to agree to invest upwards of £1bn to save the building.

This is what motivated John Bercow’s misfired attempt to change the nature of the Clerk’s job. For centuries, the Clerk has been Parliament’s chief legal adviser, a guardian of the unwritten constitution. Bercow tried to replace the current, very popular Clerk, Sir Richard Rogers, with someone experienced in running a big building.

The attempt has failed. The MPs have defeated the Speaker, and the failure has given heart to that little band of mainly Tory MPs who are intent on ousting Bercow. However, during the long Commons debate, Philip Davies – often one of the madder members of the Tory right – said sensibly: “For some of my colleagues to use this issue as a Trojan horse to pursue a personal vendetta against the Speaker carries the danger of making them look absolutely ridiculous.”

Tories mis-kick Balls

There has been a long-running argument between Labour and the Conservatives because Ed Balls wants the Office for Budget Responsibility to vet his party’s election manifesto to head off any wild claims that pop up during an election campaign about how much it would cost. The Tories said no. They were not going to have the OBR dragged into party politics.

Which did not stop the Tory press office from citing the OBR on the CCHQ Twitter feed as having said that “the biggest risk to a return to health in the public finances is that the current government or a future one… abandons commitments to keep spending on a tight rein” – implying that the OBR had sent out a coded attack on Ed Balls. One problem: the OBR never said any such thing. The quote was from the Daily Mail.

One Mail Pauline can rely on

“Never been known to pick the Mail up,” John Prescott was heard to growl during his campaigning visit to Scotland. I wonder if his wife, Pauline, shares his aversion. Her memoirs, Smile Though Your Heart is Breaking, were lucratively serialised in the Mail on Sunday and can still be purchased via Mail Online.

You can’t tax your family...

Peter Bone and Christopher Chope are maverick Tories with strong views about public spending. When Chope was leader of Wandsworth Council, his enthusiasm for cutting costs earned him the nickname “Chopper” Chope. Peter Bone once wrote that “the one truism about the Conservative Party is that we are a tax-cutting party or we are nothing”.

But the latest information released by Ipsa, the body in charge of MPs’ expenses, shows that of all MPs who employ family members in their private offices, at taxpayers’ expense, the two who pay the most are Peter Bone and Christopher Chope. Their wives/secretaries, Jeanette Bone and Christine Chope, are both on annual salaries in excess of £45,000.

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